"Hurry up and wait" usually gets applied to a different high-expense enterprise, but you can understand how it could be applied to those wondering about the expenditures of the Cubs. For a third straight season, the Cubs will cost more than $130 million to employ, and the 2011 team is no more guaranteed to win anything this year than did the teams in 2009 or 2010, the seasons that followed their "streak" of two first-place finishes in the NL Central.
A critical problem in terms of payroll and performance is that the Cubs don’t have a ton of wiggle room in terms of who they employ. If timing is everything in playing the market, the Cubs’ timing was terrible, which may be the kindest thing you can say about some of their investments. That’s the legacy of the commitments made by general manager Jim Hendry during the team’s 2007-08 run and its immediate aftermath. Hendry was dealing with a caretaker owner and operating on short time and a win-now window. This is just the latest hangover season. The Cubs shelled out eight large per annum deals to Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez and Kosuke Fukudome in the lineup and to Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster in the rotation. What little maneuvering room Hendry has had on his payroll the last couple of years has involved trying to work around those initial, unmovable investments.
Not that Hendry hasn’t tried. Turning Milton Bradley into Carlos Silva, dispensing with Ted Lilly and Derrek Lee, renting Carlos Pena, and trading away farm-generated depth to get Matt Garza to replace Lilly all boils down to trying to work around and endure the unmovable expenses in the meantime: Sori and A-Ram, Fukudome and the Big Z. That quartet is costing the Cubs almost $67 million this year, but you’d be hard-pressed to rank any of them among the top performers at their positions. All four are imperfect players, useful in isolation if you don’t bring up their price tags, but their value has taken a turn for the worse while the Cubs remain mired around .500 or worse. Hendry’s wriggling has brought no joy to Wrigleyville.
Can much be done with this lot as far as moving them? Not at these prices. Say you want to be generous, and offer the Cubs wholesale mulligans for 2010 -- for Zambrano’s squabbles and needless role changes or for Ramirez’s slow start and injury-ruined campaign. Play make-believe, and pretend those two are who they were before 2010. That still doesn’t make any of them easily swappable commodities because they’re no closer to being the star players their salaries suggest. There is still the inverse relationship between Zambrano’s bulk and performance over the previous five or six years to explain away; he’s a mid-rotation talent making an ace’s wages.
Skip the make-believe and consider the outfield duo. Soriano has degenerated into a latter-day Dave Kingman clone, a fragile bop-or-drop slugger who has posted a below league average OBP (for non-pitchers) since 2008, and someone whose defensive limitations turn every fly ball into an adventure. Fukudome’s little better, saddled with an inaccurate arm and little power for a corner, so his contributions can be measured by his excellent OBP and little else. That’s useful, but is it $13.5 million worth of useful? Between no-trade protection in the last year of his deal and a contract larded with an especially generous helping of a Japanese import’s perks, he’s no more swappable than Soriano.
As a result, the Cubs’ roster is larded up with players they can’t coax anyone else to be interested in. It would be easy to get frustrated and say Hendry needs to trade these vets away, but that would produce little benefit beyond the pennies on every dollar the Cubs would get back -- nobody will be giving up major talent in terms of prospects to get the next four months of Fukudome, let alone the next four years of Soriano.
So how far can the Cubs be left alone as is? The easy answer is "until they’re out of it," and in the NL Central, that may not be until September. The agony of this particular Cubs season is that with two-fifths of the rotation down they can reasonably complain that they don’t know quite what they’re capable of doing within this division. The Cubs have gone 2-7 in the starts taken by Casey Coleman and James Russell during the absences of Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner, with only one quality start to show for those nine turns.
Asking what could be can obscure the main point, though: The Cubs are stuck. Stuck with a lineup without patience or power -- or, as Mike Quade mused last night after 13 singles, without speed -- and a shallow team besides. The only thing top-shelf about the Cubs du jour is the expense of employing them.
Whatever the Cubs are capable of doing in the Central won’t be up to them indefinitely -- the Cardinals and Reds are much better prepared to go off on tears and more closely resemble 90-win ballclubs than these Cubs are. For the Cubs to get into this thing, they not only have to hurry up and wait on their own limited possibilities, they need bad things to start happening to other teams. It beats disassembling the team out of mere disgust, but if they’re closer to mattering come July, disgust might inspire a long-awaited teardown.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.